Fluorescent biomarkers demonstrate prospects for spreadable vaccines to control disease transmission in wild bats


Vaccines that autonomously transfer among individuals have been proposed as a strategy to control infectious diseases within inaccessible wildlife populations. However, rates of vaccine spread and epidemiological efficacy in real-world systems remain elusive. Here, we investigate whether topical vaccines that transfer among individuals through social contacts can control vampire bat rabies—a medically and economically important zoonosis in Latin America. Field experiments in three Peruvian bat colonies, which used fluorescent biomarkers as a proxy for the bat-to-bat transfer and ingestion of an oral vaccine, revealed that vaccine transfer would increase population-level immunity up to 2.6 times beyond the same effort using conventional, non-spreadable vaccines. Mathematical models showed that observed levels of vaccine transfer would reduce the probability, size and duration of rabies outbreaks, even at low but realistically achievable levels of vaccine application. Models further predicted that existing vaccines provide substantial advantages over culling bats—the policy currently implemented in North, Central and South America. Linking field studies with biomarkers to mathematical models can inform how spreadable vaccines may combat pathogens of health and conservation concern before costly investments in vaccine design and testing.

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Fig. 1: Transfer and ingestion of an orotopically spread gel biomarker in three vampire bat colonies.
Fig. 2: Bat contact heterogeneity revealed by ultraviolet powder transfers.
Fig. 3: Dynamic models of rabies transmission and spreadable vaccination.
Fig. 4: Simulating rabies outbreaks with vaccination.
Fig. 5: Comparison of the effects of culling and vaccination on rabies transmission.

Data availability

Source data for Figs. 1 and 2 are provided with this Article at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-1032-x. The complete dataset describing ultraviolet and RB transfer is available from Dryad (https://doi.org/10.5061/dryad.64t161m).

Code availability

The R scripts used to estimate the RB transfer rates shown in Supplementary Fig. 2 and Supplementary Table 2 and to carry out the epidemiological modelling shown in Figs. 4 and 5 and Supplementary Figs. 3 and 59 are provided as Supplementary Software 1 and Supplementary Software 2.


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K.M.B. was supported by NIH award F32AI134016, and computational resources were provided by NIH award U01GM110712. D.G.S. was supported by a Sir Henry Dale Fellowship that was jointly funded by the Wellcome Trust and Royal Society (102507/Z/13/Z). Additional funding was provided via a Challenge Grant from the Royal Society to D.G.S., T.E.R., J.E.O., C.S. and N.F. (CH160097). The authors are grateful to D. Walsh, M. Viana and the Streicker Group for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Any use of trade, product or firm names does not imply endorsement by the US Government.

Author information

D.G.S., T.E.R. and J.E.O. conceived and designed the experiments. R.C.A., C.T. and J.E.C. performed the experiments. K.M.B. and D.G.S. analysed the data. T.E.R., J.E.O., W.V., C.S. and N.F. contributed materials and/or analysis tools. K.M.B. and D.G.S. wrote the first draft of the paper. All authors contributed revisions.

Correspondence to Kevin M. Bakker or Daniel G. Streicker.

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Supplementary information

Source data

Source Data Fig. 1

RB marking and detection histories for wild bats in the field study.

Source Data Fig. 2

Ultraviolet powder marking and detection histories for wild bats in the field study.

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Bakker, K.M., Rocke, T.E., Osorio, J.E. et al. Fluorescent biomarkers demonstrate prospects for spreadable vaccines to control disease transmission in wild bats. Nat Ecol Evol 3, 1697–1704 (2019) doi:10.1038/s41559-019-1032-x

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